Wisconsin's First Major Female Gubernatorial Nominee

by | August 13, 2014 AT 10:55 AM

By Matthew DeFour

Regardless of how she fares in November, Madison School Board member Mary Burke entered the history books Tuesday as the first woman to win a major party gubernatorial nomination in state history.

With 87 percent support in early results, Burke, a former state Commerce secretary and Trek Bicycle executive, was projected to defeat Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, who mounted token opposition. Burke will face Gov. Scott Walker in the Nov. 4 general election.

"It's certainly a milestone for a major party to nominate a female candidate for governor," UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said. "Her victory would be even more historic."

In 73 gubernatorial contests since 1848, there have been 68 Republicans, 67 Democrats, five Progressives, four Whigs and two independents who have finished first or second in the general election -- all of them men.

Twenty-six states already have had women serve as governor. Until Tuesday, Wisconsin was among 10 states in which a major party has never nominated a woman for governor, Burden said.

Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in 2002 was the first woman to seek a major party nomination for governor in the state, though she lost the Democratic primary to Jim Doyle, who went on to be elected governor. She and Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, also came up short in the 2012 recall election primary to Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Gov. Scott Walker.

Beloit College political science professor Georgia Duerst-Lahti said it's taken so long for Wisconsin to nominate a woman for governor because the state remains relatively traditional about gender roles.

"The idea of a strong and tough governor is inconsistent with what we believe a good woman should be," Duerst-Lahti said. "We are far less comfortable with autonomous women as culturally we think of them as heteronomous, or connected as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, etc."

Burden said the long dry spell reflects that most gubernatorial candidates have come from the Legislature, lieutenant governor's office or attorney general's office.

It wasn't until the 1980s that the ranks of female legislators began to grow.

The state's three lieutenant governors since 2001 have all been women, but so far none has run for governor. The state elected Tammy Baldwin as its first female U.S. senator in 2012.

"The field team will need to continue developing if women are to break into higher office with any regularity," Burden said. "It is notable that Burke comes from a different background rather than one of the three most common routes."

(c)2014 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)